Where Have All the T. S. Eliots Gone???
I'm writing a "problem play" about suburban Jewish teens going on one of those trips to Israel that are meant to get them excited about Jewish things, such as politics, religion, talking about how hot Israeli soldiers are, saying "sketchy" a lot, etc. These trips are somewhat lame but are also a chance to get out of the country for free--an important duality in the life of many Jewish teens.

So, as part of my research for this play I did a search for "contemporary New Yorker writers." I was trying to think of a famous modern writer to have as the author, within the play, of a poignant yet lascivious New Yorker short story set in the Middle East. There is a plot point that requires this. ANYWAY, imagine my surprise when, during the course of my research, I came upon this editorial in The New York Observer. It is titled "Where Have All the Mailers Gone." Since this Jewish play I am writing, full of moral conflict and lust, is surely going to establish me, Xerxes Verdammt, as the 21st century Norman Mailer of youth theater, I read the editorial with interest.

The New Yorker's, apparently, "hubbub provoking" list of 20 meaningful writers under 40 is an "artistic affront," according to Lee Siegel of the New York Observer. Apparently, the 20 chosen writers represent the boring tastes of a dying literary establishment of which the New Yorker is a corrupt representative. They are irrelevant to the public, of interest only to other suckers who want to get involved in "professional literature."

Obviously, the Fiction Circus and its friends have made complaints to this effect for years. This is not really hard-hitting editorial journalism. I guess it's good that respectable papers like The New York Observer are "observing" this phenomenon?

I don't know about many of the 20 writers under 40 on the New Yorker's list. Gary Shteyngart's Russian Debutante's Handbook didn't seem bloodless or unoriginal, just kind of... ill thought-out at the end, or maybe based on different ideas of "what is good" than ones I would agree with. Wells Tower is all right if you suspect you are secretly a "clueless white dude" or something... or, uh, no! I mean, if you want to read about the kind of person who is not you who is secretly a clueless white dude and laugh at them. That's what I mean. Just listen to that man's name--so sonorous. Classic, but new. Masculine, but real. It sounds like grilling buffalo burgers with your friends on a summer's day and feeling good that buffaloes are raised cruelty-free and thinking with political awareness about America and what it means to you. So, clearly, the stories of Wells Tower--though maybe a guilty pleasure--are not necessarily irrelevant to this member of the general public.

I will probably read most of the other 20 writers' stories online after I finish this article. (Incidentally, the non-rigorous, pretty much arbitrary nature of all writing about "literature" and "culture"--the impossibility of ever really "proving" one's case with "empirical evidence"--troubled me a lot in college, made me feel guilty and like an invalid human being for spending so much of society's money and resources on this stuff. This feeling that actually resulted in a lot of absurd sexual situations back in the day. But right now it just reminds me that these editorials about "the state of literature" can't even be taken seriously ever. Writing about literature is like arguing with your boyfriend or girlfriend--ultimately the goal is not to prove who did what but to "communicate our feelings" or something.)

Anyway. I only started disagreeing with Siegel when he went on to say that "fiction has become irrelevant!" This is now a generic thing for "cultural writers" to say about a subject whenever they get bored of writing about it. Apparently, "fiction is irrelevant"--along with "rock and roll" and "god" and "ideas" and just the whole "normal order of existence" that I have heard about so much my entire life but have never, ever personally witnessed or felt.

Not. Obviously fiction is not completely irrelevant. Imaginary stories fill a lot of needs for a lot of people. A lot of people know how to read.

Siegel seems to define "literary fiction" as "a thing that responsible citizens read in order to learn about consensus reality"--official psychology, society, politics, etc. Or, as he puts it, with such stern dignity that I get a special feeling all over my body just from reading it, "fiction once provided... ineffable private and public clarity." This definition probably comes from the 19th century notion of "the novel"--using a crazy new "unlimited prose" narrative format to explore the hot subjects of the day, such as psychology, social studies, politics, etc, etc.

Personally, I've always liked "social novels." When I was younger I thought they were a more fun and less scary way to learn about other people than actually talking to them. Today, I'm still a fan of using imagination and narrative to analyze the confusing and/or boring things around you--inspiring interest, hope, and maybe even the ability to deal with these things better in real life! I'm even writing a socially relevant play.

But, that's just me. There are all kinds of reasons to read fiction, other than "public and private clarity." What if you don't want to read about "society"? What if you just really want to read about Viking ships, or serial killers, or something? Lee Siegel takes his limited definition of fiction as "social novels" for granted, dressing it up in a vaguely hot, but empty, T.S. Eliot-evoking phrase. Then he complains that Harper's and The Atlantic don't stand up to the tyranny of the New Yorker by profiling better "social novel writers." I guess that means no one cares about social novels, or fiction! Only non-fiction is important! Because it's NON-fiction!

Also: why does Lee Siegel think Harper's and The Atlantic are like these outrageous anarchy zines fighting the dull New Yorker? Does he normally admire The Atlantic for its revolutionary, well-researched, convention-bucking articles about how "our girls seem like they're being exposed to too much sex" or "young people today just don't value hard work"? Can't he think of better magazines to use as examples of "sharp dissent"? Oh shit, maybe "criticism is irrelevant"!

Posted by xerxes on Mon, 12 Jul 2010 16:12:29 -0500 -- permanent link

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